By MELINDA HARRELL
A proposed district court judiciary map coming out of the North Carolina Senate has raised the ire of some local district court judges.
Judge David Brantley is an outspoken critic of the proposed Senate maps. He expressed his distaste with the process and the proposed lines during a Fair Courts NC town hall at Faith Presbyterian Church Tuesday night, sponsored by Democracy NC, Progress NC, NC NAACP and Voters for Clean Elections.
The proposed Senate judiciary district changes what counties are grouped with Wayne County, removing Lenoir County from the shared territory and moving it into another district with Sampson and Duplin counties.
Three District 8 court judges attended the town hall -- Brantley, Judge Ericka James and Judge Charles Gaylor III -- along with around 40 people who are members of the Wayne County Democratic Party and other locals concerned with the General Assembly's work in reforming the judiciary system.
The Senate map proposal was presented in early December of 2017, before the General Assembly adjourned for winter break. And, Brantley said, the process was "moving pretty quickly."
"I am going to speak for myself, this is not the way judicial redistricting should be done," Brantley said.
"There is a legislative committee, a process ---- it shouldn't happen overnight by a group of senators."
Lobbyist Melissa Price-Kromm, director of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections and speaker during the Fair Courts NC Town Hall, said the Senate committee threw in the redistricted map toward the end of the meeting after the committee declined to allow Republican Judge Donald Stephens to speak as a representative for Gov. Roy Cooper's office -- an inflammatory decision which led to two Democrat committee members to walk out in protest and a subsequent apology.
"These maps have been changed so many times, and we have a Senate committee, right before Christmas, and they are like 'Oh, we are not going to do anything," she said.
"They didn't let the governor's guy speak, which they apologized for, and then they threw out the maps at the very end."
The Fair Courts NC town halls have been presented across the state, with the sponsoring groups hosting one each in Fayetteville, Greenville, Greensboro and Charlotte.
A day after the Fair Courts NC town hall in Goldsboro, however, Progress N.C. issued a press release saying the organization submitted a North Carolina state open records request for the public comments that were submitted to the Senate committee who presented the maps.
"They have not responded," Logan Smith with Progress NC said Friday.
"That is my indication (that) they don't have any intention of sending them directly to us. We have heard that members of the committee are able to access those comments. We hope that they will allow these comments to be made public because it is important for people to know what voters in North Carolina think about these plans."
James said she attended the town hall to gauge the local community interest and gather commentary on the judiciary redistricting in Raleigh because serving on the bench often limits a judge's ability to express their own views on pending legislation.
As for the process, she said she wasn't contacted about any judiciary district changes when Rep. Justin Burr, R-Dist. 67, released the House proposed House judiciary maps earlier this year on Twitter.
"I can tell you none of the judges were consulted when this first came out," she said.
"We found out about it, judicial redistricting, it was in a tweet. That is how judges found out this major legislation was being considered."
Sen. Don Davis, D-Dist. 5, said the judiciary reform process has been "riddled with a level of secrecy."
"We saw the House maps released on Twitter," Davis said, "and truly acknowledge later efforts were made to be more inclusive. Rep. Burr went around the state talking to various judges. The Senate falls into a dangerous spot and didn't learn what happend with Rep. Burr. I believe that it is incredibly important to hear from judges, the legal community and residents in this process."
James said not getting input from the districts could be problematic if the maps were enacted into law.
"There are so many logistical things that have to be considered, so many staffing concerns, financing concerns, concerns for the county on how we make this happen. This was all in-house, legislatively considered. None of the stakeholders were sought out until after there was so much push back," she said.
Programs, such as the misdemeanor diversion program which is designed to keep juveniles out of the justice system, could be affected by changing the district court district, and James has spearheaded the effort to get the program off the ground in Wayne, Lenior and Greene counties.
Should the Senate map becomes law and the districts change, the stability of the program could be open to question -- especially in Lenior County.
Brantley said changes to the district would be fiscally imprudent and inconvenient for the residents of the districts.
"The argument that they say -- that they are economically frugal -- is ridiculous," he said.
"Because what they are doing for us, in the Senate map, is taking two districts and making them three, which will require additional staff. It is not about economics, it is about power."
The motives of the Republican-led legislature is a primary concern for Brantley. He said they are trying to "pick the judges."
He also said the current General Assembly is trying to make judicial reforms, but were unconstitutionally elected, referring to the federal courts ruling the legislative districts as gerrymandered.
"The last three elections is an unconstitutional legislature," he said.
"They shouldn't be trying to do big things like they are doing."
He said "it has to stop," and encouraged the people attending the Fair Courts NC Town Hall to go to the Raleigh on Jan. 10 and talk about the judiciary reforms with their representatives in the General Assembly.
"I think he is right. I think it is very important that we go talk to our senators about stopping this judicial redistricting because the House has passed (its judiciary maps) and our ability to stop it is in the Senate," Price-Kromm said.
Voters for Clean Elections will be hosting a press conference on Jan. 10 as well as a teach-in. Citizens are invited to go to the legislative building to discuss various judiciary reforms, which will include a standing bill to change term limits on judges, the House bill changing the judiciary district lines that has already been passed, as well as Senate maps.
Sen. Louis Pate, Dist. 7, of Mount Olive, said he was going to keep an open mind about the proposed judiciary maps.
"I will certainly listen to what everyone has to say before I make up my mind," Pate said.
"I have not dismissed anything out of the hat because I know it is a big, big deal. It has been a number of years since these maps were changed."
Smith said the judiciary district maps were drawn around 50 years ago.
"If it is true that the maps are outdated and need to be redrawn, then we should take a similar course as when they were first drawn," Smith said, indicating that the first redraw was a years-long process.
"This is a process by which North Carolina citizens get justice. The district court matters a great deal to people who count on the judicial system to deliver justice fairly and impartially, and to just willy-nilly decide to redraw the maps because you don't like how an election turned out, we are better than that."